12 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

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12 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Chapter 2 “Genres” – Section 6 “Historical Fiction”

Green Bat 1 by DesdemonaDeBlake
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                                                                                                  "History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon."
-Napoleon Bonaparte

I do not believe in much of a hard line between history and historical fiction. The reason for my belief is that as soon as you begin to fill in the blanks for events and motivations outside of the historical record, you have already altered the history. Blurring the line even further is the fact that people of different countries, regions, and ideologies teach historical "facts" that contradict one another. If you need an example, compare how different countries look at the world wars or revolutionary war and what caused them. And since it's highly unlikely that any particular group of people has everything factually correct, all historical storytelling is in some part fictional. What makes a historical story more or less fictional is how much imagination you contribute to the gray areas between commonly accepted and evidenced historical fact. Today, I'm going to give what I believe to be a more helpful and accurate analysis on the genre, and provide tips for writing in either extreme.

Tip 1: Know the difference between historical fiction and alternative history, and where you fit between them.

Whether your story is considered historical fiction or alternative historical fiction depends upon you as much as it depends on your reader. As I said before, as soon as you make up a fictional character in a historical timeline or give a guess of how a real-life person might have been feeling, you are asserting an imaginary history onto the events that took place. What puts you more firmly into the alternative or fictitious genre is how accurately you plan to present your story, whether you intend to oppose commonly accepted or evidenced history, and how much your reader perceives you have done so. Saying that a soldier on the battlefield was scared that he would die is fictitious in the strictest sense, as we really can't know what any person is feeling at any given time. However, it is highly likely to be true, based on evidence and our knowledge of human nature. And it comes from our desire to portray a historical event with realism. If we take a story a step further into the fictitious realm, we can write about Genghis Khan having nightmares because he felt bad because about the horrors he committed. It perhaps isn't true and has no historical basis, but we can imagine it happening and it doesn't oppose evidence or commonly accepted historical fact. Then on the polar extreme of fiction, we can write about the Nazis winning WWII with the help of dinosaurs. This is obviously not true and impossible, spitting in the face of everything we and the audience know to be real. This makes it alternative history. These categorizations have nothing to do with quality or validity of your work. It's just a tool so that you can be strategic and conscientious of how far from historical accuracy that you want to veer so that your story can remain consistent. 

Tip 2: Be honest about how alternative/fictional your story is. 

If you do intend to blur the lines of history or if you are asserting events that might not have happened, be honest with your audience about it. I remember when I was young and learned that all of the stories of George Washington and his cherry tree (among other such stories) were completely fictitious. I immediately gained a distrust for my teacher and all books that taught such parables without acknowledging their fictitious nature. And because of that, I didn't enjoy the stories that I might have if my sources had just been honest and accurate. As an adult, I feel the same way when I learn a source of information is being careless. At best they seem foolish and at worst they seem like they are purposefully adding or omitting information to manipulate their audience. You don't want to break the trust of your reader by repeating this mistake. So either in your cover, your description, or even in the text itself, be perfectly clear in how studied/accurate/fictitious you plan to be about the historical events surrounding your story. Your readers will appreciate your honesty and take your novel for exactly what it is meant to be. 

Tip 3: Feel free to be as creative as you want, within the realm of good storytelling.

If readers wanted a 100% accurate picture of the era you are describing, they would be reading a history book and not historical fiction. So feel free to go as wild or mild with your imagination as you want. If you want to put robots in the bronze age, find a believable way to present it and then do it. If you want to imagine a fictional family living like any other family during the Great Depression, then go for it. Of course, this does not mean that you shouldn't research. To the contrary, the best lies are always created within half-truths and executed with precision. But you HAVE to add something beyond the bare-bone facts in order to turn the story into a novel. Just remember to abide by the same standards of world-building and story construction as any other novel.  

Tip 4: Show more honor to the integrity of the story than to the facts, should you be forced to choose.

You will most often be able to weave the story and historical accounts together seamlessly, especially for such complete and well-documented events in more modern history. But occasionally, the facts will contradict the narrative—the big picture that you are trying to paint. Now sometimes you may need to change your narrative in order for the facts to fit well into your story. But if that becomes impossible, given the type of story you are trying to tell, always go with the narrative. Think of it like telling a story to a friend. Sometimes, you will paint a more accurate picture of events if you embellish and summarize. This isn't to make the story seem better than what it really is, but to deal with the limits of the medium of storytelling without fully immersive virtual reality. You have to make your reader truly feel the significance of what happened—the truer truth—rather than give them bare facts that don't accurately portray the significance of a moment. Just remember to be honest with your audience as to how far you are breaking from the facts for the sake of your narrative. 

Tip 5: Make sure that your heroes are flawed and your villains are complex—even if that doesn't seem the case in history.

One of the greatest challenges I've faced in writing my alternative history novel was the one-dimensional nature of the historical antagonist. He was a pope who lived a very long time ago. And the only current records about him are old texts that he probably had commissioned to talk about how wonderful he was, his own rather arrogant writings, and the records of how many people he killed through genocide. Because of the limits of historical records, there is little way to know his personality in private life, his doubts, his dreams, his experiences, or anything of the sort. So in order for the story to mean something, I had to create a realistic depth that might have existed, based loosely on what information I could get. Just like with plot, you have to remember that your audience is here for a story and not reading a history book for bare-bones facts. So try to create characters that are as accurate as possible and then add fictional information in order to make them suitably complex and interesting for the story.

Tip 6: Organize the events of the story into a Twelve-Point Plot Outline.

A temptation I see historical fiction writers often fall into is turning the story into a factually accurate vignette—without much of a beginning, middle, or end. So when you read the story, it often feels like you are peeking in on the major events in a person's life. But the story doesn't feel like it's going anywhere. This creates major problems in the pace of the story, the ability for the audience to have expectations, the character development, etc... Ultimately, the story usually ends up boring the reader. Impose a structure on the events of the story to make sure that there is an actual plot with the dramatic tension necessary to keep reader interest. You might do this by inventing fictional events or changing the order of real events, if need be. 

Tip 7: Show a side of a story that your readers are not familiar with.

So often, we focus a historical narrative around the most popular aspects and perspectives of an era. The great war as told by the victors, the genocide as told by the victims, the... Wait a minute, I those may be the only two things we write about (for the most part). In writing historical fiction, I encourage you to challenge yourself to show something that people would otherwise ignore or fail to see. This is one of the reasons that Schindler's List was so incredible. It showed the events through the unexpected perspective of someone who worked for the Nazis, rather than to go the expected route with a soldier or someone who endured the torments of the tragedy. Don't get me wrong, it's perfectly fine to show the popularized side of the story. But don't be afraid to show us something new, to give us a perspective we never imagined.

Tip 8: Utilize cameos of some of the major events and people in the historical period.

An idea for spicing up your story is to add obscure facts, events, and figures from the era in which you are writing. The history nerd within your readers' brains will go wild with every subtle and not-so-subtle cameo of a real historical figure or event that falls within the context of your story. This isn't necessary, especially if you are trying to stay firmly within popularly accepted and evidenced information. But it's an idea if you are just trying to have fun with the story. It ends up working out sort of like an easter-egg, a little treat for the die-hard fans of history. 

Tip 9: Avoid romanticizing the era or the real people who lived in the period.

I've read a number of historical accounts (fictional and fairly factual) of American heroes like George Washington Carver, Davie Crocket, Daniel Boone, President Washington, Ben Franklin, and others. I suppose they are recent enough and close enough to my culture that I can really relate to some of them. But the more I read these accounts, the more bored I became with many of them because they all show the same brave, courageous, and one-dimensional heroes of legend. Similarly, they often paint the era as if everyone was just so noble, brave fearless, and like the entire world was somehow more epic than it is now. Ironically, the storytellers who shy away from realism come off as too afraid to illustrate a complex, difficult, realistic, and ambivalent portrayal of these characters and times. This is the reason that “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter” was so novel to me, showing a realistic amount of depth, complexity, doubt, and flaws in a man that had previously only been portrayed like some sort of demi-god. More nuanced readers will have greater respect and empathy for a realistic man, than for a legend meant to manipulate a misdirected sense of honor or patriotism.

Tip 10: Honor the heart of the true story.

I've said a lot that it is perfectly fine and even encouraged to make things up—because it is. But try to honor the meaning of factual stories, especially those with great emotional significance to people. Don't use Martin Luther King Jr.'s life-story of being dedicated to the pursuit of equal human rights, and turn it into just a senseless action story about fighting an alien invasion. Have him fight for alien rights or struggle with whether all living things are as equal as humans. Honor the truer truth—what the story was really about. And make sure that all your aliens, changed facts, dinosaurs, and more complicated villains serve to make that core story even more dynamic—not diluted. And abstain from carelessly toying with modern history, which might needlessly trigger pain in some potential readers. That isn't to say that you should avoid modern history and events, only that you should handle them with care when they mean a lot to a large group of people.

Tip 11: Be bold.

Remember that fortune favors the bold. Nobody wants a timid story—even from the sensitive material that will be featured in historical fiction. And you aren't going to publish this as soon as you get done with your first draft. You will need your writing partner and test readers to go over it, and they will tell you if you've gone too far. You can even share your insecurities with them, letting them know that you are trying to take a bold new approach to something and are concerned that it might be disrespectful somehow. And the truth is that's it better to go as far out as you can, within the realm of attempted respect, than to bore your readers because you are contantly stepping on eggshells. Better to be infamous and in the midst of controversy than to bore your readers.

Tip 12: Do your research.

I figured that this suggestion was a gimme. But just in case you doubted my position on the matter. Do research, tons of research. All the research you can, and utilize its factual accuracy as often as you are able, without compromising the narrative. 

Weekly Recommended Reading: “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck (Just a good example of powerful historical fiction that still resonates with power today.)

Write-a-Novel Exercise 2.6

This exercise is only for those who are writing any sort of historical fiction story. Write down how far you plan to go in making your story fictitious.

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vwyler's avatar
Since everything I write tends to be historical fiction, this was a concise and appropriate piece of advice.  Kudos, Mr. Parker. ;)
Graeystone's avatar
Protip to Tip 10 - Also make sure there are no descendants to complain or sue you.

Ok, good Historical Fiction Recommendations -
Julius Caesar  - Shakespeare
Three Musketeers/Man in the Iron Mask - Alexandre Dumas
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter - Grahame-Smith
Rambo Movies - Wait, what? Those? The absurdities of the action/violence aside the movies do reflect what was going on politically at the time-
First Blood - How Vietnam Veterans were treated badly when coming home.
First Blood, Part 2 - The US POWs and the government cover up.
Part 3 - The Russian invasion into Afghanistan and the US involvement.
Part 4 - The nastiness of third world pirates and the dangers of being a missionary or relief doctor in those parts of the world. Also an ending to Rambo's character.
Leopold002's avatar
Interesting as always.
Tohokari-Steel's avatar
Considering that I finished my first rough draft of a full-length novel is (what I describe as) "historical fantasy" during the time of Charlemagne...well, more accurately, my take on the lore attached to the Holy Roman Emperor, I think these tips will be helpful for what to do later down the road. I used some of the entries on this list, but the others will come in handy for future drafts. Thank you!
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
I hope they do help :) Best of luck!
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